The most bohemian corner of Paris has a sombre past. The very name of Montmartre calls to mind imagery of war, persecution, and tragedy. The “mountain of martyrs” — actually a hill, overlooking the winding streets of Paris’ 18th arrondissement — once ran red with the blood of many beloved saints, including St. Denis, who laid down their lives for their faith.
The echoes of their sacrifice remain, centuries on, in the quiet yet touristic corner of Paris. Basilica of the Sacré-Cœur was built at the end of the nineteenth century, and still stands as a regal testament to Montmartre’s religious history. Much later, during the Franco-German War that ended with the defeat of France in 1871, some 58,000 lives were lost on and around the steps of the Basilica.
Today, the ecclesiastical architecture draws millions of tourists annually, from the wholly devout to the morbidly curious. The French rarely shy away from taboo, and Montmartre at its best has always been a place where the sacred and the profane meet with a particularly profound intensity.
On that note, it’s difficult to discuss Montmartre without acknowledging its red-light district. You may be forgiven if your knowledge of the 18th arrondissement is limited to its connection to the Bohemian Revolution and the surreal neon glow of the Moulin Rouge.
While the contemporary cabaret shows at the Moulin Rouge do retain much of the spirit and excitement that was present during the sweeping cultural revolution at the turn of the century, there is a seedy side to Montmartre that can and should be avoided by visitors.
When pressed, most locals would advise against becoming too fixated on the popular attractions in Montmartre. Certainly, they are worth checking off your bucket list; the Basilica alone is worth filling up your camera roll for. But if you have more than a few days to spare in Paris, Montmartre can provide hours upon hours of self-made entertainment.
Hit the pavement and keep an open mind, because there are many hidden gems to find on the Mountain of Martyrs, ranging from the awe-inspiring to the uncomfortably erotic. Despite its quaint appearance, many lush side streets of Montmartre lead to unexpected places.
The Musée de Montmartre
There is no lack of small, intimate museums in Paris, all with the added bonus of being less crowded than the Louvre, but none are quite as remarkable as the Musée de Montmartre, housed within the oldest residence on the hill. The Maison Bel Air is a soft and simplistic beige home renovated into a museum in honour of its storied former guests.
The house’s simple stone pathway and modest shrubbery are misleadingly provincial. Much of what we know about Montmartre today began within those four walls. The Maison housed many of Europe’s most renowned artists during the Belle Époque, when Montmartre was still a rural suburb of the larger metropolis. The bright, sunlit rooms inspired artists such as Auguste Renoir to paint some of their most celebrated works.
Today, guests can wander at their leisure through the Jardins Renoir, or Gardens of Renoir, which surround the museum on three sides. Grab a coffee at the onsite café and sit in awe of the ponds and flowers that once inspired the most famed impressionist painter. Once you step inside, you are welcome to view the museum’s permanent collection of paintings dating back to the 1870s, when Montmartre was fully annexed into the city of Paris and began attracting its characteristic rebels and revolutionaries.
After an afternoon trip to the Sacré-Cœur, follow the winding rue Lamarck until you see the aubergine overhang and the soft amber lights. There are few better places in Montmartre to experience authentic fine Italian cuisine than Le Babalou. Just look for the collection of antique lampshades in the window.
Dinner is the best time to visit, but with a variety of charcuterie boards and other appetizers to whet your palate, you won’t leave disappointed if you stop in midday, either. All ingredients are hand-selected in regard to seasonal availability and the menu is constantly rotating, providing visitors with a lot of options.
Le Babalou may be located within walking distance of a major tourist attraction, but it somehow manages to retain a distinctly warm and friendly feel. Despite the delicious array of gourmet pastas, pizzas, and mouth-watering desserts (don’t leave without sampling the homemade tiramisu), locals insist that the reason Le Babalou is so wonderful is not the food, but the ambience; the interior is designed to resemble someone’s home, rather than a chic upscale restaurant.
If the thought of gluten-free pastries and artisanal coffee gets your mouth watering, it’s a good thing you’re visiting Paris. Ever since two entrepreneurial sisters named Margot and Scarlette deigned to create a portmanteau of their names and opened their first café, Café Marlette, in 2014, locals have been loving their unique brand, which is equal parts American hipster coffee shop and old-fashioned Parisian breakfast nook.
Café Marlette eventually branched out into Soul Kitchen. Despite its Anglicized name, it’s still very much the same place, only now it serves more than just pastries and coffee to hungry hipsters on the go. On the rue Lamarck, Soul Kitchen provides a central meeting spot for Montmartre locals and tourists alike to take business meetings, hang out, and indulge in delicious vegetarian and gluten-free alternatives to traditional French foods.
Sunday brunch is a particularly rowdy time at Soul Kitchen, when gourmet honey and walnut oil sandwiches, quiche, and Beillevaire cheeses are guaranteed to be on the constantly changing menu. If you’re a coffee snob, you’ll be sure to find something you can write home about here — and with soft lighting, cozy seating, and a friendly atmosphere, you might even be able to get to some of those backlogged business emails.